Virtual lives

| November 01, 2007

The rise of the Internet has seen the driver’s communication and entertainment tools – cell phones to keep in touch with family members, laptops and PDAs for finding loads, an ever-expanding range of entertainment options – coming out of the truckstops and into the cab. With them has come both the sweetness and drama of family life and truckers’ further engagement with the world beyond the next exit.

In many respects, the increasing connectivity of truck drivers has mirrored that of the average citizen.

The public’s use of communication technologies has been driven by the rise of business applications. “He who has access has opportunity,” says Patrick Wise, Landstar’s vice president of advanced technology, about the company’s load-board applications. For drivers and owner-operators, the increasing ease of navigating public online (Getloaded.com, the Internet Truckstop, TransCore and others) as well as proprietary load boards and communicating with shippers and carriers has facilitated new ways of managing family and making friends. Other personal uses have followed, extending from the development of tools by the communication technologies industry – and a lot of creative thinking on the part of drivers.

According to the 2007 Truckers News reader survey, almost 70 percent of drivers use the Internet on some level, nearly 30 percent of users logging on in the truck itself, whether with a laptop, desktop or other device. Truck.Net President and CEO Craig Zweiner sees “ubiquitous connectivity,” he says. “You know that’s happening when a guy’s riding down the road with an air card in his laptop and he’s also got a Wi-Fi account with Flying J, the Petro or TA.”

It may have been driven by business, but in the end the communications revolution is as much about lifestyle. Following are portraits of just a few of your virtual lives.

High-Definition Veteran – Tim Begle
“Some of the most technologically advanced people in this country are truck drivers,” says Indiana Roadrunner, as the Hoosier State-based Automated Transportation driver Tim Begle is known online. “It’s the nature of the job. Everybody’s got cell phones, for instance, and you’re going to do what you have to do to make it work better for you. Same thing with whatever technology you’re using. Same thing with the truck.”

The 28-year veteran driver has a Wilson Electronics cellular amplifier, which boosts the range of his phone, installed in the truck and a Verizon air card for cellular broadband in his laptop. He can access the Internet pretty much anywhere he goes.

“The Internet to me is relaxing,” he says. “I prop my feet up and sit back with my coffee. I look at the posting boards and see who’s fighting, who’s saying what. I think it’s great.”

Begle’s also got “satellite radio, an iPod in its docking station, 12-disc CD player, my subwoofer and boosters,” he says. Begle seems living proof of his own point about drivers’ technological savvy, but Begle’s not a “normal company driver,” he admits.

He’s currently installing an exterior camera system to cover the area around the truck for increased safety and security and accident-liability prevention. “I’ve already got the monitor on my dash,” he says, “and I’ll use the right-side camera to cover my blind spot.”

A couple years ago when Begle was with Styline Transportation, also based in Indiana, he tested a similar, more costly system for Houston-based Safety Vision, which supplies primarily the municipal truck and bus markets. Had he bought the system, he says, it would have paid for itself by averting the disaster of litigation – during the test, he got into what he calls a “zero-damage accident.” But the driver of the four-wheeler it involved was acting strange, says Begle, so he called the cops. “Everything’s being recorded. She starts claiming that she’s hurt and later tells attorneys that evidence for that is she couldn’t carry her kid.”

But video evidence showed her doing just that, so Begle told her attorneys he had video of the whole thing. “I didn’t even have to show it to them,” he says. “They refused to represent her.”

He estimates his new system will cost about $1,500 altogether. “It’s an expense that most people might think is crazy,” he says, “but it’s very cheap insurance. And you’d be amazed by how much you yourself can’t see.

“I was talking with somebody about accident reconstruction, an expert, and he said some of the worst witnesses were people on the scene.”

Begle’s Western Star is also outfitted with a high-security alarm system and a more recent addition, a 15-inch high-definition digital television, anticipating the 2009 broadcast-frequency switch to digital signals mandated for television stations by the Federal Communications Commissions. “Everyone’s going to go digital, if not high-definition,” Begle says, but what he most likes about the HD set is the ultra-crisp image and especially the enhanced sound quality. “When I get time, I watch movies,” he says.

He’ll also be able to run a feed from his security cameras through the TV monitor in the sleeper on its way to his dash-mounted monitor, he says. “If I hear something at night I’ll be able to turn on the TV and see what’s going on out there with the night-vision feature.”

SheDriver – Donna Bowen
Before CFI driver Donna Bowen signed on to haul for the Joplin, Mo.-based carrier, she “went to TheTruckersReport.com to read about them,” she says. “CFI was one of the top five highest-rated companies there.”

While researching the company she clicked on an errant link and found herself being asked to start a new account. “I thought, I already have a Trucker’s Report account,” she says, but she quickly realized she had been redirected to Trucker Spaces (www.truckerspaces.com), billed as “MySpace for Truckers.” It’s set up similarly to the Rupert Murdoch-owned networking site, allowing individuals to develop networks of friends, chat in private chat rooms and post to topical forums. “It’s a wonderful community,” she says, “no cursing allowed in the chat rooms or anywhere else, unlike MySpace. I’m on MySpace – and I use it because my family uses it and I can keep in touch – but it gets pretty vulgar.”

TheTruckersReport.com launched Trucker Spaces in October of 2006 but sold it earlier this year to active member and driver Trish Kelly. Based in Prattville, Ala., Kelly has 20-plus years of OTR experience as an owner-operator and company driver, and today hauls locally for Birmingham-based Southern Cal Transport, delivering mostly to the Prattville Hyundai plant. She spends most of the rest of her time administering Trucker Spaces.

“A lot of my people are truckers’ wives and children,” she says. “This gives mom or dad a place to upload pictures, or they can go in the chat room and talk. They can all talk on the cell phone – we all know that – but in the chat room, there’s something about seeing what your significant other is typing as they’re typing it. It gives you a sense of closeness that you can’t get on the phone.”

Kelly says this is just one of the reasons truckers have begun migrating from other networking sites to hers, another being the close-knit nature of the group there. “I personally get very intimately involved in these people’s lives,” she says. And it’s not money that drives her to continue improving the features there. Rather it’s a personal passion to provide a refuge from the financial strain of the road. “A truck driver has to pay for everything everywhere he goes,” she says. “God’s taken care of me my whole life, and trucking took care of me. I’m now giving back.”

In July, the site had close to 600 members, “growing fast,” Bowen says, after a database corruption wiped out its entire membership when Kelly bought the site earlier this year. Several similar sites have sprung up in the past year or two, including one launched by ATBS Business & Beyond host Kevin Rutherford, www.cdlofit.com.

Bowen, handle SheDriver, is on the staff of Trucker Spaces. Meanwhile, she shares news and pictures from the road on her pages, accessing them daily from the laptop in her sleeper cab and a Cingular air card. The West Texas native currently has a home base in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just across town from the Truckers News offices. “Small world,” she says. “Or small Web, right?

“I found another use for the Internet last night. I went on Google maps, pulled up the address I was going to, put it in satellite view, zoomed in and could see if there was room to park overnight and whether there was a gate. Very helpful.” Google Earth, available as a free download, integrates the mapping/driving direction function of Google Maps fully with the satellite view and more. Visit www.earth.google.com.

The Evolution of Ramona Nelms
Daybreak Express driver and Colquitt, Ga., native Ramona Nelms first got behind the wheel in 1996, the same year the driver and industry portal Truck.Net got its big boost in traffic under the wings of publicity driven by “three people,” says President and CEO Craig Zweiner: Truckin’ Bozo on the radio, Overdrive magazine’s then-managing editor Deborah Lockridge and television personality Lowboy Lucas.

“We showed up at the Louisville [Mid-America] Trucking Show in 1996 without a booth,” Zweiner says. “Basically, the Bozo had 30 feet and offered us 10.”

But it wasn’t just a producer-to-audience relationship Truck.Net was seeking of its eventual driver collaborators.

Driver Nelms was a relative newbie at that point. “I got my CDL in October of 1996,” she says, “first running solo, then team and finally back to solo.” She found Truck.Net in 1999 while off the road for a time recuperating from injuries sustained during an accident. “I didn’t immediately begin posting, trying to get the feel of the place – pretty much ‘lurking’ for a year,” she says.

Nelms uses the word “family” often when talking about the people she’s met on Truck.Net since her first post to the message boards in July of 2000 – in a thread about a company she used to drive for.

Nelms has long experience with computers. She got her first “about 17 years ago,” she says, when her ex-husband, a fiber-optics sales engineer, needed it for his home business. It was a desktop, and after her amicable divorce in the 1990s, she had her own computer built to her specs. She assumed moderating duties more than four years ago at Truck.Net and upgraded to a laptop for access out on the road. “I couldn’t see continually leaving my board for what could possibly be weeks at a time,” she says, and calls that decision “one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made.”

Her handle on Truck.Net is “Intimidator.” She says in her early days in the industry she lived up to that name in an effort to counter the intimidation she felt she constantly encountered in the male-dominated industry. “I was obstinate, rude, uncaring, opinionated and generally a Class A ‘bully’ – that’s a better word,” she says. “Someone down on their luck would ask me for money and my immediate response was ‘Get a job.’ I didn’t care if anyone liked me, I was going to say what I wanted. Boy, did I catch flack.”

Via the message boards, she met several fellow women drivers she now calls her “sisters.” The sisters make up a cohort that, with time and a gaining of mutual respect, drew what she sees as a new Ramona Nelms out from behind the “crass” front the old Ramona put up.

“Society accepts that men are going to be outspoken, but if a woman does it she’s immediately viewed as having no class,” she says. “In this industry we women have to be tough, but we can be tough and still remain a lady. My friends taught me that.”

Through the years, her online friends helped her to slowly change. “It used to take me days to leave ‘Trucker Ramona’ behind after I came home,” she says. “Now, ‘Ramona’ is always around, so I don’t have to go in search of her. My friends taught me that being me is a good thing. They’ve taught me that I can have opinions and express them without coming off as arrogant. Without the Internet bringing these ladies into my life, I would probably still be that abrasive, in your face, arrogant, obstinate bully.”

One of Nelms’ cherished sisters was Stephanie Hopper, nee Stephenson, known as Messyme on Truck.Net.

Stephanie Stephenson was born in Pomona, Calif., and spent most of her life on the West Coast. She started driving in 1999 after being laid off from a Boeing plant in Washington state. Another Truck.Net frequenter, Steve Hopper, handle Chilidawg, had also started driving the same year after his third layoff from the Boeing plant in Mesa, Ariz.

His encounter with Stephanie left a lasting impression. “In the summer of 2004 I was pulling food grade tanks,” says Hopper, “and had been doing so since the first of the year. Stephanie had some bad luck with a dry bulk carrier and was looking for a change, so one evening in the chat room she asked if she could call me on the phone to discuss the particulars of getting into food grade tanks.

“I have no idea what it was about that initial phone call, but I could talk to her and never run out of things to say. We both put our cell plans to the test over the next couple months.” Hopper recalls at least one 600-mile call that lasted on his end from Amarillo, Texas, all the way to Kansas City: “What did we talk about? Just about anything and everything. It seemed as though nothing was too trivial or too sensitive.”

Their first face-to-face date, an engineered meeting at Kelly’s Truck Stop in Shreveport, La., led Steve to a proposal that they both come off the road and live life together. “That was October of 2004,” says Hopper.

Stephanie would never get back into a truck.

In Wichita Falls, Texas, near where Steve grew up, he found work hauling locally, then as a technician in the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma oil fields. In November Stephanie, then 46, went to the hospital for a partial hysterectomy, and the doctors discovered a rare form of cancer in her fallopian tubes. The doctors were shocked, telling Stephanie it was something one could go an entire career and never see. They gave her a dim prognosis of anywhere from three months to three years to live, depending on the effectiveness of treatment.

“Steve could have bolted and ran but he didn’t,” says Nelms. “He stood by Stephanie through it all – all of her friends are sure glad he did.”

The couple settled in for a tough future, planning a wedding ceremony for July 1, 2006, in Wichita Falls. Off the road, they stayed in touch with their friends still out there through Truck.Net.

“I want to thank each of you for your prayers and wishes of well for me, and strength for Steve, through all this,” Stephanie wrote in a post dated April 15, 2006:

“We have been a group that have laughed, loved, cried and carried one another and even argued a time or two at different times in our lives. We have been a strong team when it was needed, and pains in the rear when it wasn’t. We have made ongoing stories that have offered each of us comic relief and cried over the sudden or surprised loss of a poster who became a friend to many.

“And now this.

“Good thing is, I can handle this.

“Thanks friends, and don’t stop praying

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